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Saturday 2 September 2023

Between Light and Dark

The world of Fyera is divided. Once it spun upon its axis like any other, but that stopped centuries ago. Known as ‘The Ruination’ it divided the world into three. One side of the world would always face the sun, the ‘Lands of the Old Days’, their waters and rivers long gone, the red soil dried into endless swathes of sand and heat. The other will never know the sun, ‘The Darklands’, frozen and diseased withered, but within its permanent shadow lurk beasts and beings of the dark unknown before The Ruination. Between them is the band known as the ‘Penumbra’ which runs right around the world, where the survivors of The Ruination have learned to adapt to a world with no diurnal cycle, no night and day, at the mercy of attacks from deep within The Darklands. In response, the peoples of Fyera constructed the Cressets of Vigil, great towering portable beacons of light, and placed them further into The Darklands, bringing a light that reveals both the lands and their secrets lost to the dark and advanced warnings of attacks upon Penumbra. These attacks seem endless as if the very darkness would reach out and swallow the last of the light. The Ruination would also have an effect upon the survivors’ souls, for they would be granted ‘The Gifts of Fyera’, abilities that none of the peoples of Fyera had possessed before The Ruination. These gifts can help in holding back the darkness, but there is the ever-present danger of the valiant defenders of the Penumbra falling into the Darkness as a result of committing or witnessing sins done in the name of the Light, of their souls being scarred by both the Light and the Dark.

This is the setting for Soulmist: A Journey from Darkness to Light, a dark fantasy setting compatible with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Published by Black Lantern following a successful Kickstarter campaign, this is the first roleplaying game and setting to be published by a Greek publisher and reach the English-speaking market. It is designed primarily for the player, with details given on creating five new Races, eight new Classes, between three and five Sub-Class per Class, new Feats, spells, and magics, and more. The core rulebook for Soulmist: A Journey from Darkness to Light is not quite standalone, the Player’s Handbook needed for the full list of spells at the very least.

Soulmist: A Journey from Darkness to Light core book begins with an examination of the three subsystems that measure a Player Character’s relationship between the Light and the Dark. These are ‘Erebos’, ‘Sparks of Light and Darkness’, and ‘The Scales of Nebula’. They derive from and feed into the ‘Soulmist’, the Nebula of Souls that surrounds the world of Fyera and reflects back onto it. The more that Dark souls pass into the Soulmist and the more the world is given over to cold, fear, and despair, whilst more Light souls increases the light, warmth, and innocence of the world. Erebos—‘darkness’ or ‘gloom’, named for the primordial Greek God of Darkness—is measured between zero and ten. At zero, a Player Character is a ‘Torchbearer’ who embodies the Light and has empathy for both the beings of the Light and those in the shadows; at three and four, he is ‘Wavering’, able to feel the touch of the dark, but all the better for seeing the Light; and at eight and nine, he is ‘Tarnished’, his sense of self lost even as he is concerned with self-preservation. At ten, he is an ‘Apostate’ of the dark and all but lost. When a Player Character is in a situation where an act—witnessed or his own—his player has to make an Erebos Roll. Depending upon the situation, the Player Character can lose or gain levels of Erebos, and this can lead him to acquiring a Soulscar. For example, at levels one to three, the Lesser effects of a Soulscar might be that the Player Character suffers from Separation anxiety, Panic attacks, Insomnia, and worse. At levels seven and eight, the Greater effects are either mania or illusions. In many cases, a Light Spark can be spent to negate these effects, at least temporarily. The only way to negate these effects in the long term is to work back down to being with the Light.

Through his connection with the Soulmist, a Player Character possesses a Light Spark. Once spent, it can be recovered with a Long Rest. What it is spent on varies from Sub-Class to Sub-Class. For example, the Pyromancer Sub-Class can spend a Light Spark to target a particular area to set alight with a bomb and at later Levels, empower his bomb with a Light Spark to infuse it with the essence of a Star-Dust Devil, a moving inferno with the form of an animal. The Oracle Sub-Class has the ‘Spin the Hourglass’ ability, which lets him take two turns, one after the other, but he chooses which one to use. With the expenditure of a Light Spark, he can empower ‘Spin the Hourglass’ to negate a single target’s action. All of the Sub-Classes have abilities which work with Light Sparks, although not at First Level. The Game Master uses Dark Sparks to power the abilities of the monsters and dark creatures under her control.

If the ‘Erebos’ mechanic tracks a Player Character’s internal struggle—not unlike, but more nuanced than the alignment system of Dungeons & Dragons—then ‘The Scales of Nebula’ externalises the struggle between the Light and the Dark within the Soulmist. It is specifically used in battles between the Light, that is, the Player Characters, and the monsters of the Dark. At the start of a battle, two pools of sparks are created, a pool of Light Sparks shared between the players and their characters, and a pool of Dark Sparks for the Game Master. These can be used over the course of the battle, but at the end, if there are more Light Sparks than Dark Sparks left over, there is a chance that the Player Characters’ Erebos level will fall, but a chance it will rise if there are more Dark Sparks left over. The tension here is whether or not the Player Characters use all of the power of the Light they can to defeat their foes, or retain some of it to maintain their hope.

Soulmist: A Journey from Darkness to Light details five Player Character Races. These are Avernians, Lumens, Primus, and Draesyr, the latter split between the Eldrasyr and the Yildrasyr. Avernians are in touch with their animal spirits and can harmonise with them to transform into their animal forms, either partially or fully. Lumens can peer into the past or the future at the cost of their age. The Primus are vampires, highly militarised and embrace the intricacies of high society, and can be powered by their blood to inflict more damage, move faster, and resist physical and necrotic damage. The Draesyr embrace nature, the Eldrasyr more than the Yildrasyr, who partially embrace the Darkness in order to protect the Penumbra and are scorned for it. All of the Race are given details about their cultural background and ethics, places and cities, and so on, helping to develop the background further.

The eight Classes are Fighter, Barbarian, Rogue, Monk, Seeker, Scholar, Spiritualist, and Mistweaver. The Fighter, the Barbarian, the Monk, and the Rogue are standard as per Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, but the others are new. The Seeker is a hunter and tracker akin to the Ranger, always looking for something or exploring; the Scholar is an educated Class, whose knowledge can benefit others with a Cognition die for an ability check or saving throw or use it as a reaction to penalise another, and knowledge of Insider Trading gives a bonus on barter and bargain checks. The Scholar is intended to replace the Bard Class as an inspiring Class. The Spiritualist is the link between the material world and the Soulmist, able to perceive Light Sparks and Dark Sparks, and can actually channel the Soulmist to power spell effects. The Mistweaver is the equivalent of the Wizard. The core Classes are in places quite basic, but
Soulmist: A Journey from Darkness to Light adds flavour and detail with some twenty-eight Sub-Classes.

Thus, for the Fighter, there is the Warrior, the Dark Knight, the Blood Prince, the Templar, and the Pack Alpha; for the Rogue there is the Trickster, the Assassin, and the Pyromancer; the Diplomat, the Engineer, and the Herbalist for the Scholar; the Healer, the Necromancer, the Shaman, and the Witch Doctor for the Spiritualist; and the Elementalist, the Blood Mage, and Oracle for the Mistweaver. Many of these are specific to the particular Races, are essentially, Racial Archetypes. For example, the Blood Prince and the Blood Mage are for the Primus only, the Ashen Berserker and the Witch Doctor are for the Yildrasyr, and the Oracle and the Templar for the Lumens. These are interesting and add further flavour and detail to the base Classes. For example, the Ashen Barbarian manufactures and consumes toxins that grant him better natural armour, extra attacks, bone spikes that increase natural damage, and even poison fangs! Using them can leave him poisoned, but this lessens as he acquires higher Levels. Later on, he can craft toxins using materials from the Darklands. These Dark Toxins can cause Foul Bloody, which turns the Ashen Barbarian’s blood acidic, and Dragontongue, which gives him a venomous bite. Lastly, the Ashen Barbarian can be ‘Embraced by the Dark’, drawing Dark Sparks into his body, increasing his Erebos to maximum level, his skin cracked and grey, eyes black, and his body smokes… The Blood Mage can substitute Hit Points for spell components, spill his blood to add necromantic damage to a spell, take damage in order to cast a spell without expending a slot, maximise a spell’s damage, and cast a spell without the need for line of sight, have the target save against the spell at Disadvantage, change the damage to necrotic, and even if the spell requires a to hit roll, it automatically succeeds!

The roleplaying game also adds three types of feat—general, racial, and then Class, as well as Backgrounds, all suitable for the Soulmist setting.
Soulmist: A Journey from Darkness to Light discusses the nature of magic in the setting as well, noting that Spiritualists and Mistweavers are based on the Cleric and Wizard Classes, that Schools of Magic are replaced by spells tailored to the spellcasting archetypes, and adds Prohibited Magic too. This is practised by witches and sorcerers who delve into the darkest of secrets of the Darklands, drawing upon their own life force and those of others to cast spells such as Inner Offer, the consumption of a creature’s organs to gain benefits to saving throws or damage, and Black Mass to control all of the Dark Sparks in the vicinity, which gives the caster an advantage in situations where ‘The Scales of Nebula’ come into play. To properly study Prohibited Magic, a Spiritualist, Mistweaver, or Witch Doctor needs a Feat such as Dark Acolyte’s Indoctrination or Tarnished Petitioner’s Sacrilege, but both need knowledge of a Prohibited Spell. Knowledge of Prohibited Spells is not widely known, and they must be found or learned from a Dark Acolyte, an existing practitioner. However, when found, Prohibited Spells can be learned by non-spell casters. The use of Prohibited Magic will literally Taint the caster’s soul, force Erebos rolls, and drive up his Erebos level. Although the practice of Prohibited Magic is reviled, the Witch Doctor will sometimes do so in order to turn the power of the Dark back at his enemies.

Rounding out
Soulmist: A Journey from Darkness to Light is a list of scenario hooks. There is a decent range here, organised by each of the five Races in the Soulmist setting. This is followed by some notes on how to use the content of SSoulmist: A Journey from Darkness to Light in a standard Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition game. This requires some major decisions, including whether or not to include the use of the Erebos system and Light Sparks and Dark Sparks as the former replaces the Alignment system and the latter empowers numerous abilities.

Soulmist: A Journey from Darkness to Light is generally well presented and the artwork decent throughout. However, the map of the single area of Fyera given is bland. It does lie within the Penumbra, so falls in part under the shadow, but some variation and some colour, even if muted, would have made it stand out. The main issue is that the book does need further editing as spelling errors and missing text can be found here and there. The index, more a table of contents, is also difficult to use.

The core rulebook for
Soulmist: A Journey from Darkness to Light introduces an interesting setting, array of character archetypes with the new Races, Classes, and Sub-Classes, and a potentially engaging set of mechanics with the ‘Erebos’, ‘Sparks of Light and Darkness’, and ‘The Scales of Nebula’ systems that help enforce the back and forth between Light and Dark. However, the setting itself is never really brought to life, its introduction all too brief before the book begins discussing its core new mechanics. There is setting and cultural background for each of the five Races, but this is placed after each of the mechanical details of the Races have been given, so not immediately accessible. Consequently, you get more of a broad overview of the setting rather than one that necessarily draws the reader in and intrigues him. Conversely, the combination of the mechanics—the ‘Erebos’, ‘Sparks of Light and Darkness’, and ‘The Scales of Nebula’ systems—and the new Classes and Sub-Classes do draw the reader in as they present new and interesting options for play. Yet even the mechanics are problematic. The ‘Erebos’ system works fine, but the options for the ‘Sparks of Light and Darkness’ and ‘The Scales of Nebula’ systems are limited. A Player Character only gets two abilities that he can empower with a Spark of Light and only at Second or Third Level and then at Fourteenth Level. There are never going to be a large number of Light Sparks in play at any one time, but it definitely feels as there should be more options that a player can choose from in order to use them. This could be gaining or granting temporary Hit Points, a temporary bonus to hit or Armour Class, and so on. Part of the aim with the ‘The Scales of Nebula’ system is to give the players and their characters the choice to use them or not. Use too many and they risk increasing their Erebos level, use too few and they might not survive the encounter unscathed. With too few options, that intent is not as obviously present as it should be.

The other main issue with
Soulmist: A Journey from Darkness to Light is what to do with it. There are scenario hooks at the back of the book, but with a limited sense of the world of Fyera and no discussion at all as to the nature of the forces of the Dark, the Soulmist: A Journey from Darkness to Light is the equivalent of the Player’s Handbook. The Game Master will really need the Darklands supplement to provide that threat. Hopefully, a scenario will follow to showcase what Soulmist: A Journey from Darkness to Light adventure looks like.

Soulmist: A Journey from Darkness to Light introduces a game and setting that has a lot of potential. The conflict between light and dark feels both desperate and epic, and is supported by mechanics and an array of Player Character options to engage in that conflict. Yet the mechanics in particular feel underdeveloped in places and do not quite support the core conflict as well as they should. Despite this, there is a lot in Soulmist: A Journey from Darkness to Light that will intrigue and interest the Game Master who is looking for a different grim dark fantasy roleplaying game.

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